When I returned to the United States after working for the first time in Japan, I decided to travel back home the long way. That meant overland to Europe and across the Atlantic Ocean. To get there I traveled via the Trans-Siberian railroad, a six-day journey from Vladivostok on Russia’s Pacific coast, through Manchuria, skirting Lake Baikal, across the vast taiga of Siberia, and through the Ural Mountains to Moscow. This trip took place just after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and Russia—as we now know it—was just emerging. Given the transition, things were fairly chaotic. I shared a four-passenger sleeper berth with an American, a Dane, and an Englishwoman. We packed plenty of peanut butter, sausages, crackers and other foodstuffs, though an occasional trip to the dining car was never that bad. None of us had been to Russia before, so the sheer madness of what we witnessed during the following days often left us bewildered.
The last large Chinese city you transit before re-entering Russia is appropriately Harbin. Harbin grew from a small village in the late 19th century to a modern city because of the influx of Russian railway engineers (and their families) constructing and managing the eastern portion of the Trans-Siberian railroad. I had spent time before in Harbin and the Russian influence is unmistakable. From the brick-paved streets to the old Russian homes and buildings, including the breathtaking St. Sophia Orthodox Cathedral. Once we crossed into Russia and came to larger cities like Chita, Ulan-Ude and Irkutsk, Mongolian, Russian, and Chinese traders began appearing in the aisles of each car with large bags of goods. We did our best to keep our distance and keep them out of our compartment, though that didn’t stop them trying to encroach as much as possible. At each station they would sell these goods to residents as the train halted for 15-20 minutes. Literally hundreds of people came out at each station so that they could buy from the shuttle traders, sometimes through the car windows. The goods on offer were mostly clothing and footwear, but other trinkets were also available. It was amusing for the few Westerners on board (primarily British and North American) to watch this process. But as we drew deeper into Russia and the goods began to dwindle, a desperation set in as people were turned away. This was a time of great economic instability in Russia. At one point several groups of young Russian males boarded the train and attacked the traders in order to steal the goods. Fighting ensued and blood was spilled, as one man was stabbed. I had to duck one time during a fight as a vodka bottle was hurled over my head at another man behind me. Our car was tear-gassed by Russian police, trying to get the bandits to disperse. Soldiers were placed in each train car, and eventually the craziness died down.
That left us to the quiet beauty of Lake Baikal and the Siberian steppes. Lake Baikal is the world’s deepest and largest fresh-water lake (larger than all of the American Great Lakes combined). Should the rest of the world run out of drinking water tomorrow Lake Baikal could supply the world at our current consumption levels for forty years. We passed by its edge for more than a day, and it hypnotized. When you weren’t reading you passed the time staring for hours at the incredible scenery of Baikal and the endless steppe. As we drew closer to Europe the steppe gave way to endless forests of birch and fir. One would think staring out of a train window for days on end would be tedious, but the time passed quickly. At the end of the sixth day we saw the towers of the Kremlin rising like a mirage from the great Eurasian plain. We had reached Europe. I was halfway home.